India’s water nightmare – India’s water shortage owes more to bad management than drought
Econimist May 14th 2016
At the dawn of time Lord Vishnu made gods and demons join in churning the milky oceans to extract an elixir of eternal life. After cheating the demons of their share, Vishnu spilled four drops of the precious nectar. Where they fell sprang up sacred rivers whose waters wash away sins, now sites for mass Hindu pilgrimages called Kumbh Mela.
For a lunar month every 12 years it falls to Ujjain, a town in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, to host the Kumbh Mela by the revered Shipra, whose waters meander north into the mighty Ganges and eventually eastward to the Bay of Bengal. By the time the full moon reappears on May 21st tens of millions of bathers, among them thousands of bearded ascetics known as sadhus will have worshipped on Ujjain’s teeming riverbanks.
What few are aware of is that the water is no longer the Shipra’s. Urbanisation, rising demand and two years of severe drought have shrivelled the sacred river. Its natural state at this time of year, before the monsoon, would be a dismal sequence of puddles dirtied by industrial and human waste. But the government of Madhya Pradesh, determined to preserve the pilgrimage, has built a massive pipeline diverting into the Shipra the abundant waters of the Narmada river, which spills westward into the Arabian Sea. Giant pumps are sucking some 5,000 litres a second from a canal fed by the Narmada, lifting it by 350 metres and carrying it nearly 50 kilometres to pour into the Shipra’s headwaters. To ensure clean water for the festival, the Shipra’s smaller tributaries have been blocked or diverted, and purifying ozone is being injected into the reconstituted waters in Ujjain itself.
The pilgrims and merchants of Ujjain are happy. But down in the Narmada valley there is little cheer. “They are wasting water on sadhus…while our farms go dry,” says Rameshwar Sitole, a farmer in the hamlet of Kithud. Since March the canal, which feeds his 2.5 hectares of maize and okra along with the farms of 12 other hamlets, has been bone dry. Mr Sitole’s crops have withered and died: a loss, he reckons, of some 50,000 rupees ($750). The government insists the water will return once Ujjain’s pilgrimage ends, but he is not so sure. “They turn it on when we protest, and then take it away again,” Mr Sitole shrugs. Meanwhile, over the hills, industrial users near Ujjain are lobbying loudly to exploit the fancy new water sources.
Poor monsoons are not unusual, but the back-to-back shortfalls, linked to the El Niño effect, which India has experienced in the past two years are very rare. Ten out of 29 states, with a population of some 330m, have been badly hit, with the worst-affected areas in the centre of the country. India is suffering its gravest water shortage since independence, says Himanshu Thakkar, a water expert in Delhi, the capital. Every day brings news of exhausted rivers and wells, destitute farmers migrating to the cities or even committing suicide, water trains being dispatched to parched regions—and of leopards venturing into towns in search of a drink.
The central government has responded with make-work programmes for afflicted areas, emergency shipments of water, and many promises. In February Narendra Modi, the prime minister, pledged to double farm incomes by 2022. Other ministers speak of massive irrigation projects, and have dusted off an ambitious water-diversion scheme for parched regions that is priced at $165 billion and involves no fewer than 37 links between rivers. Most links would be via canals—some 15,000km of artificial waterways in all.
Hydrologists such as Mr Thakkar are sceptical of big projects, open to massive cronyism, when simpler and environmentally sounder solutions are at hand. India relies not on rivers but on underground aquifers for some two-thirds of its irrigation and for more than three-quarters of its drinking water. With 30m wells and pumps at work, it is hardly surprising that groundwater levels have been dropping. Nearly two-thirds of wells tested in a recent nationwide survey showed levels lower than their ten-year average. Much water is being squandered.
Plenty, Mr Thakkar argues, could be done to conserve groundwater; for instance, by collecting and storing rainwater more effectively, regulating consumption, treating urban sewage properly and providing credit for drip irrigation to replace wasteful flooding techniques. And pricing water properly would be much better than shunting it about at great expense. Despite the severity of the current drought, which will end if meteorologists’ predictions of a better-than-average monsoon in June are correct, the real problem is not a lack of water. Per person, India has twice as much of the stuff as water-starved northern China. But India is being hampered by mindless overuse and, in many places, a lack of sensible water-allocation policies.
The contrast between two districts in a corner of Maharashtra state that is severely afflicted by drought provides a case in point. For the past two months the 400,000 residents of Latur, a city 400km east of Mumbai, have had, at great expense, to rely on tanker lorries and trains coming from the Krishna river 350km away to quench their thirst, while the district’s stricken farmers have fled en masse. Nearby Solapur once faced similar problems. Following a bad monsoon in 2012 it had to mobilise more than 650 tanker lorries to get water to needy citizens. This year, under far worse drought conditions, fewer than 20 tankers are operating.
The difference comes down to governance. When Tukaram Mundhe was appointed the main local-government administrator in 2014, he set to work applying laws and policies on groundwater use that had been wilfully ignored in the arid region. “Solapur was not taking any preventive…measures,” he says. “So I took a firm stand. I went directly to the public instead of going through my officers.”
Local farmers were encouraged to revive some 5,000 defunct water sources, such as abandoned wells and silted-up ponds, to collect rainwater. Strict regulation was imposed on these and existing sources, with only nearby farms allowed access. Commercial drilling for new wells was restricted. The owners of a water-guzzling sugar factory were fined for polluting nearby water sources. In Latur, by contrast, politically influential owners kept sugar mills running even as the wells dried up.
With the monsoon looming and their storage capacity high, Solapur’s farmers appear confident of avoiding future shortages. Mr Mundhe says that all his projects are “scalable and replicable”. But he will not have a chance to find out himself. The state government abruptly appointed him last month to a municipal post near Mumbai. Some in Solapur suspect that powerful owners of water-tanker fleets and sugar mills may have had a hand in Mr Mundhe’s sudden transfer.